Kerry Abbott kisses the top of baby Grant Early’s head and then freezes, apologetic. Her job is just to hold babies at Valley Children’s Hospital in California in the US but Grant’s adorableness is pushing her nurturing instinct into overdrive.
“I don’t know if I’m supposed to kiss him,” she says while rocking Grant in her arms.
She looks to Grant’s mother, Ginger Early, standing nearby, for an answer: “Mum?”
“You can kiss him,” Ginger says with a smile. “It’s hard to resist.”
Abbott is a “cuddler” at the hospital – one of around 100 volunteers who take turns holding hospitalised babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
“It’s nice to know someone is here loving him,” Ginger says of Abbott before leaving the hospital for work.
“Babies need touch. They need human touch and to feel loved. It helps them get better.”
Ginger thanks Abbott for “sacrificing her time” to hold her baby, and Abbott smiles. “It’s no sacrifice,” she replies. This is Abbott’s weekly dose of baby time.
Her motivation to become a cuddler: “Number one, I don’t have any grandchildren – no, that’s number two,” she says with a laugh.
Although she wants grandchildren, (“There’s an order in there,” she adds with a giggle – a message directed at her two daughters) she says she’d be a volunteer cuddler even if she had grandchildren.
Comforting infants in need has become her “passion”.
A winning situation
It’s a win-win-win-win for babies, parents, volunteers and nurses alike. Lynne Meccariello, unit support supervisor of the NICU and a liaison for the hospital’s volunteer services department, describes the cuddling programme as providing “developmental care and comfort to babies when their parents can’t be there”.
Meccariello says holding a sick baby reduces pain and provides warmth, and the cuddler encourages “self-soothing” – children’s ability to comfort themselves when they aren’t being held.
Stacie Venkatesan, director of neonatal services for Valley Children’s, says the comfort of cuddling helps premature babies grow because they then spend more time sleeping, and less time awake and fussy, which burns more calories and limits their growth.
Human touch also promotes emotional development through socialisation. “Having it be a nurturing, more calm environment, that really promotes health and growth for these very small children,” Venkatesan says.
Volunteer cuddler Shirley Redman says the programme helped her fulfil her dream of rocking babies in retirement. She has five grandchildren, but they’re teenagers now, so it will be some years before she might be able to cuddle great-grandchildren.
In the meantime, the baby-loving Redman is getting her fix as a volunteer cuddler. “I’ve always wondered if it’s more healing for me or for the babies,” she says. “I think it’s both.”
There are volunteer cuddlers in the NICU from 7am to 10pm, seven days a week. Parents can opt out of receiving a cuddler for their baby, but most are happy they are there, Meccariello says.
Cuddlers also leave cards at the babies’ cribs that tell parents who cuddled their baby each day and for how long.
“We love our cuddlers,” says Valley Children’s nurse Shayla Norwood. “We would not get through our day without them. “These babies need to be loved and they need to be held, and we can’t clone ourselves. We can’t hold them all day, so they help us do that.” – The Fresno Bee/TNS/Carmen George
*This story has been edited for length and clarity.